“[Google] Maps is, in many ways, a living thing–not a static description of the world”
- Andrew Lookingbill
Google Maps is one of the most popular navigation apps, with 67% of people preferring it to other similar apps. In fact, Google Maps see 1 billion users every day, and there are 5 million active apps using it every week. A lot of individuals and businesses rely on the accuracy of Google Maps, so the Google team works hard to keep the information updated, despite how fast the world is changing around us.
Growing cities around the world equate to a fast increase of infrastructures like roads, airports, and buildings. Businesses are constantly changing and moving, and changes in governments can lead to new road names. To keep up with all the alterations, Maps updates every second of every day. If you wonder how exactly they manage to produce a map that is not obsolete as soon as it is published, you have come to the right place. A lot goes on behind the blue line that takes you to work every day, so let’s dive into some of the most frequently asked questions about how Google Maps works.
A picture is worth a thousand words
A common question about Google Maps is how they manage to get detailed information in parts of the world where access is difficult and data is thin. And the answer lies in images. Street View plays a big role in making it possible. When it is not possible to get information like a road or business name from other public sources, Maps uses Street View to fill in the blanks by extracting the data from billions of images. This is such an important component to the creation of an accurate and in-depth map that the Street View team get extremely creative in its collection methods. For narrow streets where the Street View car cannot get access, there is a Street View 3 wheeler, and in the Faroe Islands, cameras were mounted on sheep, kayaks, and even wheelbarrows to map out remote parts of the islands.
Two heads are better than one
Mistakes happen and sometimes even an image is unreliable. However, users have their eyes and ears on the streets. Google Maps relies strongly on its community of users to refine the information, and correct it when it is wrong. Users’ contributions and input through Local Guides and Google My business add up to 20 million every day or the equivalent of 200 every second. This input is verified and only published when there is a level of confidence in its accuracy.
Another great source of information for Google Maps is third-party authoritative sources, entities that consume and distribute information without being the source of it. National, state and local governments, non-profit organisations, educational institutions, or businesses can upload geo data to Google Maps who gives priority to missing places but also considers suggestions like parks or buildings. Once again, the information is reviewed before being applied onto the map.
When tech takes over
If you’ve paid attention so far, you would have noticed that some very high numbers have been thrown around. The amount of data that is being processed every day to create and refine Maps is various and vast. This is where the synergy of man and tech really shines. From the processing and storage systems, to machine learning libraries and frameworks, tech helps bring meaning to the amount of information pouring in. Sometimes though, computers need a little help. When it came to buildings, computers had a hard time identifying their outline, resulting in blurry images. Technicians created a catalogue of the most frequent building outlines and programmed it into the algorithm resulting in high-quality polygons and a clearer picture.
Similarly, automation allows for a high volume of varied data to be processed simultaneously. That means that different languages and scripts can be digested, as well as numerical information and distances.
In the streets with no names
What do you do when a street simply doesn’t have a name? 50% of the world’s urban population resides on unnamed streets. This was a problem for many businesses like food deliveries, but also for emergency services. That is where Plus codes come in.
A Plus code is a street address where there is none. It looks something like J9CG+2X Noida, Uttar Pradesh. They are free, accessible offline, easy to use, and they make the whole world accessible.
What makes Google Maps so valuable is not only that it takes you to the right place with the best route, it is also the quality of the data it provides. The address of a business, its name, ratings, reviews, pictures, opening times, price range, how busy it is...all of this information contributes to creating a rich data set that improves the function of Google Maps. It is thanks to the level of detail and commitment of its workers that we get such a high quality of information at our fingertips. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. For more of an understanding of how Google Maps is made, have a look at this blog, and if you would like to stay up to date on all things maps related, register to our newsletter and listen to MapShack, a podcast about maps and technology.